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A Non-Sports Fan's Guide to the Super Bowl

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Written by Jordan Francis

Posted on 26 January 2014

Super Bowl Sunday and its glorious traditions of camaraderie, junk food, trash talking, expensive commercials, and extreme couch potato-ing are fast approaching. The Super Bowl is arguably the biggest and most important American football game in existence, largely because people who pour ungodly amounts of money into tickets and advertising say it is. However, not everybody experiences the same level of enthusiasm for this sacred annual football game and many of these non-sports fans will be pressured into watching or at least pretending to care about a game and traditions which they know little to nothing about. For those of you who fall into this category, fear not. While it may prove impossible to learn everything there is to know about football before the big game, it is not particularly difficult to learn enough about a combination of football and human behavior to be able to successfully navigate all the requisite social activity surrounding this most treasured and monetized of American sporting traditions.

Let's start with the basics of what you need to know for this year's game. For those unaccustomed to American terminology, this game is not "football" as the rest of the world knows it. This is American football, where the ball is more oval in shape and rarely touches the players' feet. This year's Super Bowl is on Sunday, February 2nd, 4:30 PM Mountain Time. The two teams playing this year are the Denver Broncos and the Seattle Seahawks. Do not forget that the same teams do not play every year, so do not assume past games were the same as this one. The Broncos' colors are blue and orange and they will be wearing orange jerseys. The Seahawks' colors are blue, green, and gray, and they will be wearing white jerseys. Remembering these color distinctions will help you distinguish between teams on the field. Avoid wearing the colors of a team you are not supporting. If you want to wear a team's colors, use clothing you already own unless you want to spend a lot of money on official gear.

Surprisingly, you are not actually required to support a team and if anyone gives you a hard time for taking this path, tell them you are still upset that your team did not make it to the playoffs and they should back off. You may want to research the name of another team in advance of giving this answer to add credibility to your assertion. However, if you choose to support a team in the game, the easiest way to pick one is by geography. If you are from Washington, you should probably cheer for the Seahawks. If you are from Colorado or anywhere else, support the Broncos, since most people around you will be doing the same. Note: this article assumes that you are going to be watching the game in Colorado. If you are going out of state to watch the game, adjust accordingly. Finally, if you decide not to watch the game, almost everything from and surrounding the Super Bowl will be available on the internet almost immediately after the game. The main talking points in the week after the event will be the halftime show, the commercials, and especially the winners of the game. Look up as much or as little of these attractions as you wish, though it is advisable that you at least check who won the game before re-entering the world of social interaction on Monday.

For those intending to watch the game, the rest of this article will cover the etiquette and knowledge with which you should be equipped before attending a Super Bowl party. However, it is good to note that nearly any transgression you might make can be instantly forgiven if you bring good food. One of the Super Bowl's most sacred traditions is the devouring of junk food. Chips and dip, hot wings, pizza, fried chicken, brownies, soda, beer, cookies, hot dogs, and every other sort of detrimental deliciousness you can think of. Even relatively healthy foods will sometimes make an appearance, though they will generally be better received if they come fried, covered in cheese, or equipped with a side of Ranch for dipping. If it does not require silverware, it will be gone by the end of the game. Unless your host specifically tells you not to bring anything, it is generally considered a good idea to bring some food. You do not necessarily have to bring anything fancy. Dollar store chips and soda are usually fine for those of you who are running short on cash. However, if you do have a killer recipe on your hands or know where to find some really good snack food, people at the party will love you and will give you less of a hard time about anything you do not understand about the Super Bowl. If you misinterpret an important play, it is easy to stop the laughter or strange looks by saying "What do you expect? I'm just the guy/girl who brought the seven-layer dip/awesome homemade cookies/bucket of really good hot wings."

The commercials and the halftime show are also firmly in the realm of Super Bowl traditions that everyone can enjoy. These are the parts of the Super Bowl that even self professed "non football fans" look forward to every year. Since this is such a big game, advertisers spend a huge amount of money and go all-out in their advertising endeavors. Thus, the commercials typically wind up as entertaining shorts that people want to watch and consider a shared, important cultural experience instead of the usual annoying interruptions that everybody mutes.

Similarly, the halftime show is a short concert that takes place about halfway through the game. It is a very flashy, over-the-top performance the pulls out all the stops and spares no expense to grab your attention. It is a bit of a gamble every year as to whether the performer will actually be any good at singing live, but the show usually at least presents a very impressive visual display that is fun to watch. The confirmed performers for this year's halftime show are Bruno Mars and The Red Hot Chili Peppers. (That is not the name of one band, by the way. Those are two separate artists.) The only bad thing about these extra sources of entertainment is that they force you to pick and choose your breaks very carefully. Unlike most sporting events, where commercials and halftime shows are usually safe times to stretch your legs, use the bathroom, or get more food, turning away from the TV during the Super Bowl always carries the risk of missing some major talking point. Luckily, everything will be online after the game, so you can later look up anything you miss.

Figuring out how one is expected to act and react during a normal game, let alone the Super Bowl, can be initially overwhelming. However, using a simple combination of observational skills and knowledge of mob mentality, it actually becomes quite easy to pick up on acceptable behavior during the game. In other words, follow the golden rule of spectating: if you do not know what is going on, just imitate the people around you. Unfortunately, there will be times when you are not paying attention and the crowd around you will erupt into furious yelling that does not indicate if what happened on-screen was good or bad. For these situations, you will need to master the art of neutral enthusiasm. Arm yourself with ambiguous words like "oh," "man," and "dang," which can be used in response to favorable and unfortunate situations in the game. Practice exclaiming these words while keeping your facial expression neutral. Then, when the unclear yelling starts, you will be able to join in by using any of these words and maintaining a blank face until you can determine if the people around you are happy or upset by whatever just happened. If you need more time to figure out what is going on, briefly clap your hands together or slap your leg and simultaneously turn your head sharply to the side. This combination of gestures gives the appearance of further enthusiasm in any situation while allowing you more time to analyze the general reactions in the room. Once you have determined how most of the room is reacting, adjust your facial expression and tone accordingly. Remember to adjust the volume of your exclamations to approximately match the loudness of everyone else in the room. Extend your vowels if your fellow watchers prolong their cheering or jeering; this generally means that whatever happened on-screen was a big deal and you will probably get to see a replay. Prepare a couple of neutral enthusiastic responses like "I know," or "that was crazy," or "yeah, no kidding" in case someone asks you if you saw the action or what you thought of it before you can determine what happened. Remember, if you maintain the proper levels of enthusiasm, no one is going to notice that you have no idea what is going on. If all else fails and you are being really probed for your opinion on something that you missed, grab some food and immediately begin to eat it. Chances are that by the time you finish chewing, the game will have moved on and your questioner will have lost interest in you.

As the game wears on you will start to pick up on the trends of your fellow game-watchers and it will become easier for you to recognize the ebb and flow of their enthusiasm. You may even begin to enjoy the experience of sharing in the pitfalls and triumphs of this crowd. If you reach this point, you may want to try out the next stage in unified audience participation: yelling at the referees. The referees are essentially the judges of the football match who decide if players or other participants have broken the rules and who hand out punishments for rule violations. They are the guys on the field in striped black and white shirts and are not players or members of any team. In football, they throw out small yellow flags when they think the rules have been broken and one of the most time-honored traditions in the world of sports is to make fun of and yell at them whenever possible. Some people restrict themselves to complaining about supposedly bad calls while others grumble about anything that penalizes their team. If you know little to nothing about the rules of football, it is advised that you wait until you hear people around you moaning the key words of "c'mon Ref!" before you join in the muck-raking. If you wish to join in with this communal taunting and complaining, you should prepare a few generic insults to use against the referees. Common topics include insulting the referee's intelligence, eyesight, personal bias, and overall competence. The amount of spite and vulgarity in these insults may vary depending on who you are watching the game with and the levels of sobriety at the party. Adjust according to the mood of the group and the level of insult you are comfortable delivering.
The good thing about sports enthusiasts is that on Super Bowl Sunday, they are essentially just fans enjoying their hobby's big annual event. As with any fandom, there are of course abrasive, hardcore fans, but most of them are good people who have no problem answering questions about the game. As long as you are not asking questions every ten seconds, most of them will be happy to talk about what is going on and explain the finer points of the game to you if you get lost trying to follow the action. However, for those that want to learn ahead of time, what follows are some basic rules and mechanics of football to get you started.

A football game is divided into four quarters with an additional half time break between the second and third quarters. These quarters are timed, but the clock can stop for various reasons, including an incomplete pass, a penalty, injuries, time-outs, or if a player goes out of bounds. The boundaries of the game are designated by white lines forming a large rectangle around the field. The large rectangle is divided into several smaller rectangles spaced five yards apart. The rectangles at the end of each side of the field are called "end zones." Each end zone has a yellow post that splits into two prongs called "goalposts." Players need to get the ball into their team's end zone to score, which can be done in several different ways. Players can score a "touchdown," which is worth six points, by carrying the ball into or catching the ball in the end zone. After a touchdown, the team that scored has the opportunity for extra points. They can go for an "extra point," worth one point, by kicking the ball through the goal posts, or attempt a "two-point conversion," worth two points, by running the ball into the end zone again. Since running the ball past the enemy team is harder than kicking it past them, most teams choose to go for the extra point. Teams can also score with a "field goal," which is worth three points, by kicking the ball from anywhere on the field through the goal posts. Given the difficulty inherent in kicking a small object over a long distance, most teams do not attempt this method of scoring until they are at least past their opponent's forty-five yard line. The final method of scoring is a "safety," worth two points. A safety happens when an offensive ball carrier (somebody carrying the ball for the offensive team) is tackled behind his own goal line (in his team's end zone). If you find yourself unable to keep these terms straight, referring to any of these situations as "scoring" is totally acceptable.

The game starts with a "kickoff," wherein the defending team kicks the ball to the offensive team to put the ball in play. Teams use kickoffs to return the ball after every time they score, unless they score by safety, in which case the team that was scored on kicks the ball from its own twenty yard line. After the kickoff, the team catching the ball can attempt to run with the ball and starts play from wherever their runner is stopped or they can catch the ball in the end zone and call for a "touchback," which allows them to start the next play with the ball on the twenty yard line. The offensive team attempts to advance the ball towards their end zone through a series of coordinated advancement attempts known as "plays." Plays begin when the "center" "snaps," or throws, the ball to the "quarterback," who then analyzes the situation and attempts to determine the best way to advance the ball. Players move the ball down the field by running with it or throwing it to teammates, known as "passing" the ball. The defensive team attempts to stop the offensive team from getting the ball into the end zone. The defense can do this either by intercepting, or stealing, the ball or by stopping the offense from covering the required ten yards within four "downs." A down begins when the offensive team starts a play and ends when the defensive team "tackles" the player carrying the ball (grabs him and forces him to the ground), forces the ball carrier out of bounds, if a pass is incomplete (when the ball is thrown but not caught), or when a play ends after a "turnover" (an incident where the ball changes possession between teams). If the offensive team manages to advance a total of ten yards or more during their four downs, the down count is reset to one and they can continue advancing the ball. If the offense fails to move the ball forward the required ten yards before the downs are over, the ball is turned over to the other team. Because of this, if a team is nowhere close to the required ten yards by the start of the fourth down, they will often kick the ball down the field so that the other team has to cover more ground after the turnover.

The final important concept in football is the penalty system. Football has a lot of rules and violation of these rules results in a penalty, usually signified by one or more referees throwing a yellow flag onto the field. After a flag is thrown, the referees will generally confer briefly to agree on the call and then announce who broke the rules and what the punishment is. The list of penalties that can be issued during a game is long and multi-faceted and beyond the scope of this article. However, most penalties are given for one of two main reasons: players (or occasionally other participants) are out of their allowed positions on the field or because one or more players was being overly violent or acting in a way that unnecessarily endangers themselves or other players. Some of the most commonly called penalties include: "false start," when the players are in position to start the play and an offensive player moves before the snap, "offside," when a player is on the wrong side of the line of scrimmage (an imaginary line extending across the field from the starting location of the ball) at the time of the snap, "holding," when either a defender holds or tackles a player who is not carrying the ball or an offensive player grabs, holds, or otherwise uses their body to illegally restrain a defender, and "pass interference," when a player makes contact with a ball receiver or a defensive player who is in position to catch after the ball is in the air in a way meant to keep the receiver from catching the ball. Violations of these sorts will most commonly result in an "n" yard penalty, where "n" is a number of yards of ground that the offending team loses. For instance, if the referees call a five yard penalty on the defense for holding, the offense automatically gets to move five yards closer to their goal.

The information in this article may seem a bit overwhelming, but if you get lost, just remember: the Super Bowl is about sharing an experience with friends and having fun. Go with the flow of the crowd, laugh at the stupid and awesome commercials, enjoy pretending to be a music critic along with everybody else during the halftime show, bring and eat some good food, and never forget: however confused you may be by the game, it beats doing homework.